Socialist View, No. 14, Spring 2005

Aftermath of Iraqi elections:

A VICTORY FOR DEMOCRACY?

BUSH AND BLAIR are claiming that the recent elections in Iraq are a "victory for democracy" and a vindication of the occupation of Iraq. The "neo-cons" in the Bush administration are jubilant.

By Ciaran Mulholland

They are busy sabre rattling over Iran's nuclear programme, with the implied threat of military intervention if they don't get their way, and are claiming victory in the Lebanon where tens of thousands have taken to the streets to demand Syrian withdrawal. They claim to have neutralised Libya and to have seen in a more compliant Palestinian regime. All of this, they argue, was made possible by the invasion of Iraq two years ago and has been copper-fastened by the outcome of the elections.

Were the Iraqi elections a victory for imperialism? Is the scenario really so rosy for the Iraqi people and others in the region? The answer of course is no. In reality, not a single issue has been resolved by the elections and the illusion of progress throughout the region is just that, an illusion.

Bush's empty boasts echo the claims made by US President Johnson following Presidential elections in South Vietnam in 1967. Then the New York Times reported 9 April 1967: "United States officials were surprised and heartened today at the size of the turnout in South Vietnam's Presidential election despite a Vietcong terrorist campaign to disrupt the voting. According to reports from Saigon, 83% of the 5.85 million registered voters cast their ballots yesterday. Many of them risked reprisals threatened by the Vietcong. A successful election has long been seen as the keystone in President Johnson's policy of encouraging the growth of the constitutional process in South Vietnam. The hope here is that the new government will be able to manoeuvre with a confidence and legitimacy long lacking in South Vietnamese politics."

Within seven years, the US was forced to withdraw from Vietnam in disarray and the puppet South Vietnamese regime collapsed. The 2005 Iraqi elections are no more a harbinger of peace and stability than the South Vietnamese Presidential election of 1967.

Shia victory, Sunni boycott

Moreover, the Iraqi elections cannot in any way be regarded as "democratic". Democratic elections cannot take place in a country under occupation by imperialist powers. No electoral rolls were published and only a handful of the names of the candidates were made known because of "security" considerations. Al-Jazeera, the most critical Arab TV network, was expelled from the country.

The election went ahead amidst widespread violence and in the aftermath of the destruction of whole towns such as Falluja. There were high turnouts in the Shia and Kurdish areas but there was a massive boycott by Sunni Muslims - around 20% of the population. Anbar province, which includes the cities of Falluja and Ramadi, recorded just 2% turnout, with 17% in Ninevah, which includes Mosul.

The turnout in Shia areas reflected the reaction to years of repression under Saddam, but also the Shiite parties' jockeying for position to achieve greater influence in the national assembly. Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, spiritual leader of many Iraqi Shias, had issued a fatwah to vote.

It took two weeks to count the 8.5 million votes, a claimed 58% turnout (a much lower turnout than in Vietnam in 1967). Predictably, the main, predominantly-Shia list, the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) - backed by al-Sistani - is the largest group in the new "transitional" national assembly. It received four million votes or 48%.

The Kurdish Alliance of the PUK and KDP came second with 2.2 million or 26%. The list headed by US stooge former prime minister, Iyad Allawi, gained just 14% - despite the fact that it was backed by the media and the US military.

The working class and poor of Iraq did not have the opportunity to support a party or alliance which would fight to defend their interests by opposing imperialist occupation, capitalism, and standing for the unity of all Iraqi people exploited by capitalism. The Communist Party, which historically had a powerful basis of support, failed to present such an alternative. It supported privatisation and, sitting in the interim government, failed to oppose the imperialist occupation. It paid the price for these policies and polled only 69,920 votes in the elections - about 0.8%.

Imperialism really in control

Every candidate, even Allawi, claimed to stand for the withdrawal of the occupation forces. Real military and economic power, however, remains in the hands of US imperialism. Within days of the election, further evidence has been published revealing the economic rape of the country by imperialism. George Monbiot, writing in the British Guardian, highlighted the contents of a report by the Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, which detailed the activities carried out after the fall of Saddam Hussein by the Coalition Provisional Authority (which governed Iraq between April 2003 and June 2004). In just 14 months, US$8.8 billion went missing.

Bribes and corruption

A British adviser told the BBC "File on Four" programme that CPA officials demanded bribes of up to US $300,000 to offer contracts to companies. Iraqi money seized by US army officials simply disappeared. Some US$800 million was handed over to US commanders without ever being accounted for. US$1.4 billion was flown from Baghdad to the Kurdish regional government in Irbil and has not been seen since.

The US administration do not expect to pull out of Iraq for at least two years and some Pentagon analysts believe they will be there for much longer. Other strategists of the American ruling class recognise that there is no solution and favour an early exit leaving Iraqis to their fate but Bush cannot countenance such a humiliating u-turn at this stage.

For the first time in modern history the Shia (around 60% of the population) are the nominal principal political force in Iraq: under the Ottoman and British empires, the monarchy and Saddam Hussein's dictatorship, power was concentrated in the hands of the Sunni minority.

The concern of the imperialist powers is to ensure that the influential Shia clerics and parties, especially the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (Sciri) and Daawa, share power with other groups. They fear a theocratic regime on friendly terms with Iran. They are thus leaning on the Shia groups to come to an agreement with the Kurds or Allawi's list in the Assembly and to somehow incorporate the Sunni minority outside the Assembly.

Although 13 of the largest Sunni parties which boycotted the elections have agreed to be included in drafting a new constitution, the powerful Sunni Association of Muslim Scholars said they would not participate and that they "look at the coming government as a puppet government" International Herald Tribune, 3 February 2005.

The Kurds will attempt to enshrine their de facto autonomy in the constitution. However, many Kurds desire all-out independence. There is a fierce struggle for control over Kirkuk, a city near the important northern oil fields. Although Kirkuk lies just outside the Kurdish self-rule area, Kurdish parties lay claim to the city. There are, however, counter-claims from Sunni Arabs and Turkomen.

The Turkish regime is watching developments with grave concern. It is completely opposed to Kurdish independence, which would inflame the Kurdish question within Turkey, and has threatened military action - ostensibly in defence of the Turkomen minority - if Kurdish forces try to take complete control of Kirkuk. Any concerted move towards Kurdish independence would likely result in similar moves by Shias in the south to consolidate their control over the southern oil fields.

The UIA is made up of a collection of differing Shia political and religious leaders. Within this alliance are forces who favour collaborating with US imperialism and also those which support the establishment of Khomeini-style Iranian clerical rule in Iraq.

Within hours of the provisional results being announced, three candidates emerged for the post of Prime Minister from within the UIA. These include Ibrahim al-Jaafari and the US favourite for the job, the current finance minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi.

The election programme of the UIA included a time table for US withdrawal. It also pledged to write off Iraqi debt, expand the public sector and keep control of the oil sector.

In October 2004, however, al-Mahdi told a meeting of the American Enterprise Institute that he planned to, "restructure and privatise the Iraqi state-owned sector" and in December he promised to announce plans for a new oil law, "very promising to the American investors." Al-Mahdi negotiated an austerity deal with the IMF prior to the elections. Clearly, he is in the pocket of imperialism and big business.

"We are losing"

Whatever deals are cobbled together in the new Assembly the situation on the ground remains deeply worrying for the imperialist powers. US imperialism is bogged down in a war and is unable to defeat the insurgents militarily. Colin Powell, when asked by Bush about the progress of the war, frankly admitted: "We are losing."

In the opinion of Zbigniew Brzezinski, former President Carter's National Security Adviser, a military victory would require 500,000 troops, US$500 billion expenditure, a military draft, and the introduction of a war-time tax. Even then he estimates it would take at least ten years to secure a victory.

According to recent reports, one third of US army personnel in Iraq is comprised of troops from the National Reserve. The commander of the National Reserve, Lt Gen James Helmly, recently wrote a memo to the Joint Chiefs of Staff warning that the entire national reserve force of 200,000 was "rapidly degenerating into a broken force" Daily Telegraph 7 January 2005.

The occupation forces now confront a resistance which is larger than the total number of foreign troops occupying the country. According to General Muhammad Abdullah Shahwani, director of Iraq's new intelligence services, the resistance has now grown to over 200,000. Of these an estimated 40,000 are considered "hardcore fighters". It is clear that the growing resistance cannot be crushed militarily.

End of Bush's honeymoon

The debacle facing US imperialism in Iraq is already provoking wider social and political problems for the Bush regime domestically. For the first time a majority of the population (56%) is against continuing the war. On the eve of his second term, Bush's approval ratings had fallen to 50% with 47% disapproving. In recent decades this low level of approval rating is only comparable to those achieved by Richard Nixon at the beginning of his second term in 1972.

The rising death toll of US soldiers (nearly 2,000, with over 25,000 injured) and the absence of any prospect of a victory will fuel the rising opposition to the war. Bush is certain to face a growing demand from US workers, soldiers and their families and youth for the troops to be withdrawn.

The danger of a break-up of Iraq is recognised by the more far-sighted capitalist commentators. While this was clearly not the original intention of US imperialism when it launched the invasion, their policies have fostered sectarian divisions and propelled events towards the Balkanisation of the country.

Prior to the elections, the International Herald Tribune warned: "When the United States was debating whether to invade Iraq, there was one outcome that everyone agreed had to be avoided at all costs: a civil war between Sunni and Shiite Muslims that would create instability throughout the Middle East and give terrorists a new ungoverned region that they could use as a base for operations. The coming elections...are looking more and more like the beginning of the worst-case scenario."

Sections of the US ruling class welcome this horrific possibility. Articles have appeared in the New York Times and Washington Post arguing that "We have to have a proper election in Iraq so that we can have a proper civil war", and that the US should "see Iraqi factionalisation as a useful tool."

The U.S. occupation and domination of Iraq is the problem, not the solution. The anti-war movement should stand in solidarity with the Iraqi people and support their efforts to resist, while explaining that we oppose Bush and Blair sending soldiers, overwhelmingly working class and poor, to die in Iraq.

The Iraqi people have every right to defend themselves, with arms, against the occupation forces, and to fight for the removal of US, British and other imperialist powers from Iraq. Yet this does not mean that socialists can support or condone all the actions of the resistance or give unqualified political support to the groups behind the resistance.

It would be a mistake to adopt an uncritical stance towards groups that, while opposed to the imperialist occupation, are tied to reactionary forces in Iraqi society and are opposed to the interests of workers and the poor in general and women in particular. A crucial task of the anti-war and labour movements internationally is to provide resources and solidarity to support those activists trying to build workers' organisations opposing the occupation

The Iraqi resistance

The Iraqi resistance is composed of many different political forces. Many fighters are drawn from the ranks of workers and the poor, especially from the youth. However, many resistance forces are led by distinctly reactionary, anti-working class groups. According to some reports, the resistance includes up to forty Ba'athist organizations.

Right-wing Islamic groups like "Al Qaeda Organization for Holy War," led by the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and "Ansar al-Sunna" want to impose a theocratic dictatorship and are already carrying out brutal repression of women in an attempt to impose a system of sexual apartheid. Some groups are carrying out bombings directed at ordinary Shias in an effort to foment a religious civil war.

While the anti-war movement should stand in solidarity with the Iraqi people, this does not mean we should support the aims and methods of those resistance groups that stand in complete contradiction to the interests of the Iraqi people and act as a barrier for them to advance their struggle to end the occupation.

Socialists cannot support sectarian bombings aimed at Shias, indiscriminate attacks which overwhelmingly hurt ordinary Iraqis, or brutal kidnappings and beheadings. Bloody incidents which these tactics create can be manipulated by reactionary forces to increase sectarian tensions between different Iraqi communities and are used by imperialism as "evidence" that the resistance is made up of "blood-thirsty savages." Such tactics cast the Iraqi working class and poor in the role of onlookers, not participants, in the battle to rid their country of imperialist forces.

Some in the anti-war movement argue that we should support the resistance without hesitation or qualification. One aspect of genuine internationalism however is that socialists have a duty to raise our ideas on what policies and strategy are necessary to end the occupation of Iraq. These are not "foreign" or distant issues. The development of the Iraqi resistance will have a huge impact on struggles in the US, Britain and elsewhere.

The continuing occupation will inevitably fuel massive Iraqi anger and bitterness towards the occupying forces. But given the deep divisions running through Iraqi society, and the absence of strong workers' organizations, resistance to the occupation could manifest itself in the further growth of right-wing Islamic forces and a sectarian civil war. Such a development would be catastrophic for the Iraqi people, leading to even more bloody carnage.

Undoubtedly, most Iraqis do not want a sectarian civil war. The potential for unity across religious lines was shown during the national uprisings in April and August of 2004 in response to the U.S. attacks on Falluja and Najaf. Both times, there were important elements of unity between Sunni and Shia forces. Most of the fighters come from the working class and the very poor, and there were important seeds of class solidarity.

Socialists support the formation of a non-sectarian, armed militia, comprised of Shia, Sunni, Turkmen and Kurdish workers and peasants, and others exploited by capitalism. A force of this nature would fight both against the occupation and also against sectarian attacks. It would not act indiscriminately but would conduct a struggle under the democratic control of elected committees of Iraqi people.

The tendency to unite can only be secured in a lasting way, however, through building an ongoing mass movement of working and oppressed peoples of Iraq. A powerful workers' movement would act as the backbone of a united campaign of national liberation which seeks to improve the conditions of ordinary people regardless of ethnic or religious background.

This would mean fighting for an emergency socialist reconstruction program by harnessing the wealth of Iraq's oil industry to provide jobs for the 50% of Iraqis who are unemployed through a massive public works program, providing clean water, electricity and housing for all, rebuilding the healthcare and education systems, and providing land and credit for impoverished farmers.

Historically, Iraq had a rich tradition of workers' struggles, socialism, and secular nationalism. However, this has been largely dissipated by decades of brutal repression by Saddam's dictatorship and the breakdown of society created by the two U.S. wars and economic sanctions. Organised working class forces are still very weak. They remain, however, the only possible force that can take Iraqi society forward.

Rebirth of trade union movement?

Some trade unions have been established amongst sections of workers. In May 2003, workers employed by Iraq's largest oil company, the Southern Oil Company (SOC), formed their own union, the SOCU. The SOCU claims a membership of 35,000 and has opposed the privatisation of the oil industry. Other, small sections of workers are grouped together in the Iraqi Communist Party controlled Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU).

However, these steps towards building an independent organised workers' movement are at a very early stage and are hampered by the policy of the IFTU, which collaborated with the interim government and has not opposed the occupation.

Socialists support the building of independent, democratic trade unions that are free from any state intervention or involvement. We also support such trade unions conducting a struggle for the withdrawal of all of the occupying powers in Iraq and opposing all Iraqi governments which defend capitalism. It is necessary to oppose the ideas and policies of the leadership of the IFTU by democratic debate and discussion. Socialists cannot support or condone the assassination of the IFTU leader, Hadi Salih. Such methods will only deepen sectarian divisions and will also be used in the future against leaders who defend workers' interests.

A struggle to fight for the right to organise free trade unions, for democratic election and control of all union leaders, the right to free assembly and meetings, a programme to struggle for decent wages and conditions, opposition to privatisation and for democratic workers' control and management is the way to defeat union leaders who support collaborating with the government or occupation forces.

A mass movement of the working-class and oppressed masses in Iraq is needed to cut across all ethnic divisions and build a force capable of ending the occupation. This movement will oppose not only the occupation but all the existing political alliances and parties which defend capitalism.

The ending of the occupation should be accompanied by the convening of a constituent assembly of democratically elected delegates to create a workers' and poor farmers' government leading to a socialist Iraq as part of a socialist federation of the Middle East, in which national rights, including the right to self determination and secession would be guaranteed.



More articles on the ongoing war in Iraq are available in our sitemap

This article is from the Spring 2005 edition of Socialist View (it was printed in late March '05).

The contents list for this issue is here, with the back issues here.